Thursday, April 11, 2019

A Strange Form of Revenge: On Half-Past Eight PM (Part One)

As someone who is prone to nostalgia but optimistically suspects his best years still lie ahead I have a tricky relationship with successes of the past, even as moderate as they may be. While putting on a reasonably successful local theatre theater production is a pretty low bar for greatness it remains the thing I have done in life that was seen and enjoyed by the most people. So since this is the blog about me, please indulge the part of me that is a legend in my own mind. Here's a little reflection on the 15th - and 10th and 13th - anniversary of Half-Past Eight PM.

It began as revenge. A very specific, strange form of revenge. The kind where the people you're getting revenge on aren't even there to know it.

Back when I was a teenager, my high school used to run an annual Fringe Festival - students had a chance to stage their own one-act plays, whether licensed, professionally written scripts or originals. They were staged in the drama room to provide an intimate Off-Off Broadway studio atmosphere.

When I was in Grade 10 I auditioned to be part of this. I liked drama very much, but more for the chances to write material than act it. I was not really a "drama kid," part of the tight knit clique who did the school plays and partied together afterward. I knew a lot of them, worked with them on project, sat with them sometimes at lunch, but wouldn't have called many of them friends at that time. I was an outsider by nature - I wanted friends but wouldn't have gone out of my way to make one. As a result the people who were my friends at school mostly only knew me st school, as someone who ate lunch at their table, worked on projects with them, and occasionally bothered them on MSN Messenger. I kept people at arms length even as I yearned for their approval. I envied those who were good at being sociable, but becoming a joiner and seeking out company seemed like anathema to me. 

I was auditioning because my friend Ana - one of the few people who seemed to like talking to me for any length of time, and who aspired to be a film director - had said she was submitting a play to direct, and I wanted to be able to hang out with her.

Ana's submission didn't make it, and somehow, my jittery, nervous, stammering, note-checking audition didn't earn me a callback from any of the upperclassmen who were directing. Despite the fact that this was perfectly justifiable, and indeed the objectively correct thing to do, I was bitter.

I sat down at my computer uttering words that I have said or thought more times in life than I should admit, rarely with positive results: "I'll show them." I was resolute in my desire for some form of revenge, and my plan was to do the only thing I could: to take over next year's Fringe Festival myself. To write a piece that would be so devastatingly, undeniably good, it would not only be accepted into next year's Festival, it would be the best thing about it. It would render all other one-act plays obsolete. I wanted no less than to drop an asteroid on the Fringe Festival, and contemporary drama, as it had been.

The play was called "Half-Past Eight PM" and it was intended as a parody of what I thought a one act play looked like. In reality, it was just a fun little piece of work - as things that are meant to be parodies ard often just good, interesting examples of their targets. I wanted to do something that would work with the limitations of the form: one simple set (a bench), mostly just people talking, and my brilliant, brilliant words.

The story was this: our protagonist Mark has learned that his old crush Beth is coming home after years in England. He's going to wait for her bus to get in at 8:30 and confess his feelings. And while he waits he talks to a variety of stock quirky types: a snarky hooker, a woman who works for the mob, the ghost of a dead rock legend. You know, those hoary old standbys. This crew of oddballs would feed him romantic advice and help him reconcile whatever issues kept him from confessing his feelings in the first place. It was a simple premise, but one I could take anywhere.

I had started writing without a real direction in mind for the plot other than, presumably, the girl shows up at the end. It was fun undercutting the sincere, hopeful would-be romance of the Mark character with sarcastic outside forces and his own self doubt. Both combined were a genuine reflection of my attitude at the time - love, as much as I yearned for it, was for other people. The idea of falling in love, of your fondest hopes and aspirstions being acknowledged and returned, seemed too unlikely to be true in a cruel, indifferent universe that has better things to worry about than you.

That all would have been one thing, but I needed a trick to keep up my sleeve for the very last moment, a card to reveal to the audience upon the expected arrival of Beth... some reason I had gathered all these people in a room to watch.

Partway through, Mark steps offstage for a bit (mostly to give the actor playing him a break and switch up the play's flow.) A campy, low stakes mafia plot develops where Mikey Hoffs, the owner of a local grocery store is hiring the local Godfather type, Louie Vercotti, to help run the competition (memorably named supermarket on Elm, Ultra Food Mart) out of business. Louie agrees to send ovèr his sister Billy to intimidate the manager of Ultra Food Mart, to the point of potentially killing the poor bastard. Over the price of lettuce.

This all seems unrelated until Mark returns and strikes up a conversation with Billy. Her tough, if absentminded facade gives way to a shy, earnest soul who seems to just want to be loved as Mark confides in her. A somewhat one-sided attraction seems to develop - Mark is of course focussed on his dream girl, so Billy is not an option. "She'd have to be crazy to turn you down," Billy says as she heads off after receiving a summons from her boss/brother. "So if she's crazy..." she produces a business card, which Mark takes.

What the audience knows about Billy is that she's transgender. This was revealed rather callously in a line of dialogue from Louie as Mikey was admiring Billy's appearance and the apparent incongruity between her gender and her occupation.

This was written in 2003 by a 16-year-old. The discourse of gender studies had not quite exploded into the mainstream yet, and definitely was not making its way through my high school. Even so, I had always been fascinated by these people and their plight, and knew they had gotten a rough shake in representation. What I wanted to do was take something that seemed transgressive and weird, and normalize it - take a sensitive approach that still didn't keep me from doing something funny with it (irrespective of her gender, Billy is a bit absent minded and has a habit of undercutting her brother while he's trying to do Serious Mob Stuff.) The audience will first titter at the ha-ha-she's-a-he revelation, because that's what they would have been bringing to the show in 2003. But the idea is to turn the joke on them when I reveal thst besides Mark, Billy is the only character with a beating heart in the play. The idea was to interrogate what's supposed to be so funny, why wouldn't her desires be as valid as Mark's, or anyone else's? Transgendered people as people - how novel.

Now it is 2019 and I don't know that I would execute this with the exact tone today as then, knowing what we know and growing as I've grown. It's hard, and less inviting now, to try to tackle another group's story and risk using them as just fodder for yuks. But the way it is in the play, I think it's still fundamentally sound (if slightly behind the times, by now.) For an unworldly teen in the pre-intersectional feminist days of 2003, I think it was a pretty advanced, sensitive and thoughtful inclusion.

This all to say, I don't think being a straight white male means you should not include people of different experienced in your narratives. Quite the opposite, but it falls on you to think seriously about what you are saying with these characters and how they are being used. (And to be prepared if, after the work is done and you think it was all okay, someone comes along and tells you no, you didn't get it right.)

At the end of the play, Beth arrives. England was miserable but she's heartened to see her old friend Mark there. Before he can confess his feelings, she mentions she needs a job. "Oh, I can help with that," Mark says as they begin to amble offstage. "I just became manager of my dad's old store." Which one was that again? "The supermarket on Elm. Ultra Food Mart."

Rimshot, good night all. I remember the exact moment I realized where that was going, a few lines into the conversation between Louie and Mikey. It was one of my proudest moments. I completely sidestep the question of putting Mark and Beth together, but still leave the audience feeling like they've gotten a whole thing, and more besides. What happens next is in their minds. Do they or don't they? Does Mark die or what? You don't know, but you know.

The last thing I wrote for the play was at the beginning. I added a new character named Perry Robbin, Mark's friend who briefly accompanies him while he waits - I figured the body of the play could use someone who is not meeting Mark for the first time ever, to ease Mark into the wildernes.

Perry, named after an internet acquaintence of mine whose name is as memorable as the cyberbullying campaign he waged on a mutual acquaintence, is everything Mark is not - cocky, self-assured, and a philanderer, a real foil for the insecure, nebbishy romantic Mark. Perry also crosses a major threshold you don't do as a writer if you want a character to be liked - he is cheating on his fiancee. Mark knows this, as he saw Perry out and about with this woman he is not engaged to, and Perry's explanations strain credulity. But at the same time, Perry is his old friend and somehow all Mark can do is shake his head and go "You're a real piece of work." And if the audience reaction is any indication, they're right there with him, as he became pretty much the most memorable part of the show. Even moreso than a lovestruck genderqueer mob enforcer.

Cheating was a taboo I wanted to interrogate. I've never understood how it happens in real life, how people can bring themselves to hurt others in that way - partially because back then I could hardly imagine two people finding each other in the first place, let alone risking it all by pursuing a second person who wants them. Fiction usually gives its characters an "out" when it comes to being unfaithful: an unfulfilling relationship, a truly irresistible temptation during a moment of weakness, maybe a spouse who is unfaithful first. As far as the play goes, Perry has none of that. He is slime. He's unapologetic, only sorry if he gets caught (and even then, not really,) with no real reason as to why he did it in the first place besides the opportunity. He's just awful, but his awfulness is so egregious it somehow comes out the other side, something rarely seen in entertainment. Again, if I'm lucky the audience is left pondering why they're so okay with this, but in reality I suspect they just considered it a good time and went on with their lives. Still, it's another rather impressive writerly trick I was able to pull off as a young creator and would not have attempted had I started as a more mature, emotionally developed writer/person.

Having written this play over the course of Spring and Summer, it came time to submit it with the new school year. The idea of taking on the whole project by myself seemed daunting, so I drafted someone to co-direct, one of the few people I would have called a friend at 16. Josh was, like me, on the outer orbit of the drama crew, but was popular in his own circle, drummed in a band and generally had his own thing going on. I had made friends with him and his best friend Kyle through CommTech, a class where I had hosted a Talk Show project for which Josh was director. We had a lot of the same sense of humour and taste in movies and music. For whatever reason, they liked and accepted me as a frequent Third Amigo. I needed a guy like him on my side. We also happened to be in the same Grade 11 Drama class that semester.

There were going to be six plays in the Festival, including a musical adaptation of Meat Loaf's "Paradise By The Dashboard Lights" written by my friend Emma, that Josh and I were to appear in supporting roles. You could be involved in two plays, but a small talent pool meant that our cast was made up of a few relatively in-demand actors who were our friends, and a lot of younger kids for whom this was their first real play.

That year our school advanced in the much ballyhooed Sears Drama Festival with their adaptation of Alan Lightman's novel Einstein's Dreams. Most of the students directing Fringe plays were involved in that production and the workload proved too overwhelming, so gradually they dropped out. With Josh and I not committed to anything else, we soldiered on. We were the last play standing. My vow to become synonymous with the 2004 Fringe Festival was within reach, more completely than I had even envisioned. (I wonder if, had the other five plays remained, this event would feel so legendary and special in my mind and those who joined me? Would it have been the best of the lot or just one of many?)

The "Festival" ended up being rolled up with our Grade 11 Drama Final Presentations, which also happened to be one-act plays performed after hours in the drama room. Personally I was far too distracted to give much focus to my presentation - which sucked since I had to eat onstage and I was kind of going through a weird thing about food. I really cared far more - almost exclusively - about Half-Past anyway. I had more family and wellwishers there than I would have wanted if it was just my own performance. They were there for me but not there for me.

Our cast was led by my friend Ryan from drama class as Mark, the only person I could think of with leading man chops as both a comedic straight man and a romantic. Like Josh, he was someone I liked working with in  lass, but also someone I would have wanted to hang out with a  unch while doing this. After all, if you're doing this at 17, you really want to be doing it primarily with people you like.

The production wasn't without trouble. We were struggling with some of the same scheduling issues that took down the rest of the festival - most of our cast were outsiders who weren't involved in Einstein, but Ryan was and he worked hard to manage both. The role of Louie had to be recast at a relatively late date. My ambitiously bantery dialogue could be hard for young actors to pin down. Even though our last dress rehearsal didn't show them to be much worse than the performance I gave that night, several big mistakes - badly-coveresd flubs and clumsy blocking errors - occurred that troubled Josh greatly, and he proposed we shut the whole thing down.

I was insistent we follow through. I wanted the people who had come to get the show they expected, as it would have been a forgettable, fruitless night without it. I think there's some common showbiz saying about that but I'm drawing a blank on how it goes. But really, deep down, I needed the validation of the inane "revenge" scheme I had hatched over a year earlier. This was my destiny.

We had a heads-down vote counted by our drama teacher Mr. Rosser in the dressing room after dress rehearsal. I never found out the exact number who voted against performing. I think the actress playing Billy had reservations, and Josh for sure voted against going onstage. Years later he told me he was grappling with anxiety and the onset of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and looking back I can see that (and not just in the "I'm so OCD I always make my bed" sense, the "I need to circle the block three times before I park in my driveway" sense.) But we all had our own shit to deal with and he had signed on for this.

The majority voted to proceed so while the Grade 11 class was performing, we were drilling and drilling with Italian runs for hours before the curtain. There was hardly any blocking in the play, it was all dialogue, so as long as you could remember what you were supposed to say next, you were good.

Mark and Perry (Ryan and a grade 9 named Adam) took their places. The lights went down, only a streetlamp that was part of the of the set stayed lit. I pushed play on the show's introductory tune, Beck's "Where It's At." The lights came up.

During the play, my favourite bit of synchronicity, which we hadn't rehearsed properly, happed in the scene where Mark falls asleep and is visited by a dead musician named John (played by my very accent-capable friend Doug.) The character makes his entrance to the ethereal opening chords to the Beatles' "A Day in the Life." Working the soundsystem, I faded the volume out and let it continue to play silently as the scene goes on, John assuring Mark he can work through his issues and profess his love to Beth. When he makes his exit, the volume faded up again, and - in the best unplanned bit of timing I could have hoped for - the song had just reached the point where Lennon's soaring vocals transition from Paul's "Somebody spoke and I went into a dream..." middle-eight and into the final dramatic verse, a maelstrom of strings surrounding. It was brilliant. (Less brilliant was the audience member who nudged their seatmate and whispered "Elton John!")

40-odd minutes later, Mark told Beth (another niner named Michelle) the name of his workplace, to a chorus of "oh!"s mixed with laughs and applause. Cut the lights, hit the closing tune (Faith No More's "Epic") and we were victorious. Minus a slight fumble here and there, the show was a total success. The laughs were all there, even in places I hadn't expected.  

The whole thing was a rousing success and, despite the earlier speedbump, Josh and I resolved to work together again. My family loved it, the drama kids loved it, strangers loved it. I had won.

Now the question gnawed at me... what next?

To be continued...

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